Social engineers drive bullet train

SACRAMENTO – Americans suffer under the delusion that transportation systems are just that – systems for transporting people from one destination to another. What most of us fail to recognize is that the politicians, activists and planners who play the greatest roles in creating those systems have far different goals.

To today’s transportation movers and shakers, such systems are giant jobs-creation programs designed to boost economies and provide high wages to members of influential unions – and are key to remaking society in a way that is nicer to the environment and leads to a changed citizenry that is less likely to rely on automobiles. Think of transportation these days less as civil engineering and more as social engineering.

Grasping those points is crucial to understanding the debate in California over a proposed high-speed-rail system, a project defined by inexplicable route selections, massive cost overruns, predicted travel times that will never be realized even under the most optimistic scenarios, and fantasy-land funding promises.

None of those realities stops the political locomotives promoting “high-speed” rail from chugging along. At a news conference last month, a coalition of construction unions and business leaders championed the project. “We need jobs, and we need jobs now,” one union official said at the rally, according to a Palo Alto publication.

But government cannot create economic growth by shaking down taxpayers and running up debt, even if those dollars are used to benefit one particular interest group in one segment of the economy.

At least we know where the unions are coming from. But consider the big picture, as pitched by President Barack Obama: “What we’re talking about is a vision for high-speed rail in America. … Imagine whisking through towns at speeds over 100 miles an hour, walking only a few steps to public transportation, and ending up just blocks from your destination.”

Actually, it’s hard to know what he is talking about. Riders still need to get from home to the center of a city, and there’s no way that any rail system is going to take most riders to within walking distance of their destinations. Train rides are far slower than plane flights. I have pipe dreams, too, but at least I don’t have the ability to fund them with your money.

Unfortunately, California’s voters in 2008 approved Proposition 1A, which authorized nearly $10 billion in debt spending to begin this rail line, which would ultimately link Anaheim with San Francisco. The rest of the money for the system (originally predicted at around $40 billion) would come from federal funding and a variety of local and state sources. Since then, Congress has killed the Obama administration’s rail plan. California’s state government still struggles under a massive deficit. Local governments are scrambling amid a down economy and overspending on things such as pensions and high salaries for government workers, with some municipalities now considering bankruptcy. There is no money, and taxpayers already are struggling here.

Even in spend-happy California, the bullet-train proposal has become something of a joke – a project rarely discussed without including the term “boondoggle.” So, California High Speed Rail Authority approved Thursday and forwarded to the state Legislature a new business plan that purports to solve the criticisms of the project. The new plan claims to have slashed $30 billion from a price tag that had ballooned to nearly $100 billion.

And instead of just building a “train to nowhere” between two out-of-the-way stops in the state’s Central Valley, the new business plan was amended at the last minute to restore Anaheim as the route’s southern terminus, although the L.A.-to-Anaheim leg might not be at top speed because a decision will be made later on spending the money to electrify the L.A.-to-Anaheim segment – necessary for “high-speed rail.” The system for years will also share tracks at some points with conventional commuter trains.

So much for an Asian-style rail system that was to speed people between Southern California and San Francisco in 2 hours, 40 minutes.

Even one of the architects of the system has complained bitterly that the new proposal has become a “train robbery” that diverts rail funds to local commuter lines. Many critics argue that the new business plan almost certainly violates the clear dictates in Prop. 1A – i.e., that the train move people quickly between South and North without requiring transfer.

Gov. Jerry Brown, who refuses to address the bloated state government even as he spends more and demands more from taxpayers, argues that the state’s Draconian carbon-emission cap-and-trade system, which imposes fees on businesses that produce carbon dioxide in the name of fighting global warming, will fund the train line. That amounts to yet another massive tax on businesses to fund something far less than necessary. How many more companies will head for the exits or expand their operations in states that encourage business creation rather than view private enterprise as a cash cow that can always be milked?

Boosters still argue that private investment will help fund the system even though it’s unlikely that any private companies would invest in a boondoggle. The Chinese might be glad to lend California the money, but that’s a different matter.

Here’s how ridiculous the proposal is: The notoriously spendthrift Legislature is in no rush to approve the new plan just sent it by the train authority, according to recent news reports.

Meanwhile, many Californians wonder why hundreds of miles of rail is needed when they can hop an inexpensive flight at John Wayne or LAX and be in San Francisco in about 70 minutes. Those who think that way are forgetting the rules at the beginning of this column.

Transportation these days isn’t about getting from here to there, but about creating government-funded jobs and pursuing big-vision projects that have little correlation to how we actually live. No wonder the state roads and freeways – not to mention its budget – are such a mess.